National and economic security have been the twin agendas of US presidential elections for more than half a century.
The Democrats have attempted to demonstrate why they are the best party to manage the economy, while the Republicans are underlining their security credentials.
However, the threat of a recession following the fall of the housing market, an increasing budget deficit coupled with rising energy costs and a falling dollar, have made it clear to Republicans that “it’s the economy, stupid”, to borrow from Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign slogan.
Likewise, the fact that more than 250,000 US soldiers have been deployed to Iraq and the oil rich Gulf, as well as to Afghanistan and other parts of the impoverished Greater Middle East, has made it abundantly clear to Democratic candidates that “it’s the foreign policy, dummy”.
Candidates as saviours
The risks and dangers facing the US’s economic and national security are the recurrent themes of any campaign.
Security is the key word here and to advance their case, both Republicans and Democrats have spread fear to harvest votes.
That’s where the double twist of irony lies.
Never has a country looked so powerful or sounded so fragile than in this year’s presidential election.
The US is, after all, the richest and strongest country in the history of nation states, accounting for more than a quarter of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP) and more than half of its military spending.
Only those on the fringes of the Republican and Democratic parties, such as Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich, reject the concept of an arrogant US that insists on being the world’s manager.
Leading Democrats and Republicans alike believe that the US should be the engine of economic globalisation and the arbiter of war and peace around the world.
They only disagree on the more efficient and less costly methods to maintain such dominance.
Many of the Democrats promise to boost the military with about 100,000 more soldiers and to better manage free trade to suit US interests.
The Republicans advocate greater investment in military technologies, the deployment of troops and open markets.
‘Evils of the Greater Middle East’
In the past, US policy-makers perceived a conventional threat from China’s ascendance and Russia’s “intransigence” as their paramount security challenges.
But now they see global threats stemming from the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, global warming and illegal immigration, with these issues becoming central to the candidates’ foreign policy programmes.
However, the most urgent challenges stem from the Greater Middle East hotspots.
They include a precarious situation around Afghanistan and Pakistan and the Gulf region – home of most of the world’s known oil reserves and where Iraq and Iran remain the most urgent strategic challenges – as well as the Arab-Israeli conflict.
All the major candidates have published well-prepared foreign policy programmes in the influential quarterly Foreign Affairs perpetuating the classic right-versus-left divide.
But their first real life test, beyond such prepared position papers, came only a few days before the Iowa caucuses.
Pakistan, a Rude Awakening
The assassination of Benazir Bhutto, Washington’s ally and a leading contender in Pakistan’s parliamentary elections, shook the candidates awake from their holiday season slowdown.
Pakistan, a nuclear power designated by the Bush administration as a leading front on the “war on terror” was threatened by chaos.
In response, the inadequacy of the candidates was matched only by the incoherence of the White House as the Bush administration tried to put a brave face on a failing interventionist policy.
Republicans seasoned in foreign policy issues such as John McCain and Rudy Giuliani and Democrat Joseph Biden jumped on the opportunity to “talk tough” and underline why foreign policy “experience, knowledge and judgment” were indispensable conditions for the presidency.
Alas, they had nothing interesting to say beyond self-promotion.
The assassination underlined the limitation of the US’s ability to dictate change or protect their allies and clients.
Other, less experienced, candidates such as former Republican governors Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee sounded out of touch and lost for words, with Huckabee not realising Musharraf had already lifted the the country’s state of emergency.
Barak Obama suggested that his Democrat rival and frontrunner Hillary Clinton needed to answer for her vote in favour of the Iraq war, which diminished the US’s capacity to deal with immediate threats from al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Obama had already angered Pakistanis when he advocated the US bombing of suspected al-Qaeda bases in the north of their country – where about 80,000 Pakistani troops are deployed to fight the US “war on terror” – and the doubling of the number of US/international foreign troops in Afghanistan.
Senator Clinton called for an international investigation into Bhutto’s death, but would not even specify under whose authority.
Senator Edwards called President Pervez Musharraf on the telephone to ask him to keep the democratic process alive.
Others called for cutting all aid or for dismissal of the Pakistani leader.
The same unilateralist, interventionist and preaching tone was present in all the leading contenders’ responses and no effective policies were suggested.
You say talk, I say attack
Differences among Democrats on how best to deal with Middle East challenges are noticeable, but their differences with the Republicans are quite stark.
Democrats Obama and Edwards have long stood against the war in Iraq, demanded troop withdrawal and advocated unconditional dialogue with US adversaries such as Iran and Syria.
Edwards even condemned the whole concept of the “war on terror”.
Clinton has moved towards the right to sound bold on national security.
She voted for the resolution that paved the way towards war in Iraq and voted for another giving the US president the option to escalate the conflict against Iran militarily.
Interestingly, the religious and socially conservative Huckabee and economic conservative Romney advocate a less interventionist US policy.
Huckabee even criticised the “bunker mentality” of the Bush administration, while Romney spoke of introducing multilateral policies to empower moderates in the Muslim world.
For McCain and Giuliani, whose foreign policy advisers are predominantly neo-conservatives, the war in Iraq and the “war on terror” have been their candidacies’ raison d’etre.
Along with Romney they supported the troop surge in Iraq, are increasingly confrontational with Iran and advocate use of force if Tehran continues to carry out uranium enrichment as part of its nuclear programme or to support anti-US armed groups in Iraq.
Giuliani continues to attach “Islamic” to every utterance of the word “terrorist” in a direct appeal to neo-conservatives and pro-Israeli support.
For the love of Israel, and fear of its lobby
Since the Cold war ended and the Middle East peace process began in 1991, the domestic dimensions to the Arab-Israeli conflict have become more relevant for presidential candidates than its international repercussions.
That is why over the past several months, leading candidates have schmoozed various Israeli lobbies unashamedly.
Their appeal is not limited to Jewish voters who are mostly liberal Democrats, rather to their lobbies and institutional representatives who, paradoxically, advocate hawkish foreign policies.
Sympathising with Israel can be profitable on other fronts, as west coast security hawks see in Israel a “leading strategic ally”.
Religious southern conservatives demand a greater Israel as fulfilment of biblical prophecy.
And last but hardly least, east coast neo-conservatives speak of Israel as a beacon of Western civilisation and the only democracy in a sea of Islamic fundamentalism.
No wonder Obama, who is considered the least pro-Israeli among the leading candidates, could write in Foreign Affairs: “Our starting point must always be a clear and strong commitment to the security of Israel, our strongest ally in the region and its only established democracy.”
Even those candidates who criticise the US “occupation” of Iraq do not dare utter the words “Israeli occupation”, let alone condemn 60 years of the denial of national Palestinian rights.
At best they support more of the same “peace process” seen at the recent Annapolis meeting.
Overall, Democrats have attempted to define their campaigns in contrast to George Bush’s tenure, while Republicans try to hold on to the spirit of his doctrine while distancing themselves from its failures.
Aside from “pre-emptive war”, the various pillars of the Bush doctrine have already been abandoned, leaving Iraq as the most important issue of contention.
All Democrats would like to see phased or immediate withdrawal of US combat troops, while all Republicans (with the exception of Paul) reject any timetable for withdrawal.
If the Democrats succeed in focusing their campaign on Iraq as a microcosm of failed foreign policy, they might win the year.
Otherwise, Republicans’ success in turning Iraq in the minds of Americans into an inevitable front in the “war on terror” will work in their favour.
Their equally imperial approach to international and Middle Eastern affairs should not disguise major differences between soft or hard power approaches to foreign policy.
And vice versa.
MARWAN BISHARA is a senior political analyst for Al Jazeera.